Chile: Dockworkers’ Union in the Frontline of the Struggle Against Piñera

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The Dockworkers Union of Chile (UPC) has been at the forefront of the struggle against conservative president Sebastián Piñera since the popular rebellion began on October 18. The dockers’ union has repeatedly brought the nation’s ports to a standstill and taken part in numerous general strikes and demonstrations. The UPC is also playing a leading political role with its opposition to the “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution,” an accord signed by establishment politicians that seeks to divert the ongoing rebellion into a process of limited constitutional reform.

Chile is now in the midst of a popular rebellion. Sparked by protests against unpopular subway fare hikes, the popular rebellion that began on October 18 is perhaps best described as an uprising. One union playing a leading role in these tumultuous events is the radical Dockworkers Union of Chile (UPC – Unión Portuaria de Chile).

Academic and contemporary Chile specialist Franck Gaudichaud has pointed to the key role now being played by the Dockworkers Union of Chile. In a recent interview, he points out that in the early days of the rebellion, it was the UPC that first took action with its 24-hour strike on October 21, while the bureaucratized United Workers’ Centre (CUT – Central Única de los Trabajadores) union federation initially refused to act..

The 6,000 members of the Dockworkers Union have repeatedly paralyzed the majority of the nation’s ports in a series of 24-hour and 48-hour strikes. The first was the 24-hour strike on October 21 that coincided with the largely spontaneous demonstrations of over 1 million people that same day. The UPC then called a 48-hour strike for October 23 and 24, which fed into the October 23 general strike, the first called by the CUT since the rebellion began. The dockers’ union has also had a 24-hour stoppage across October 29-30 that linked up with the general strike of October 30, and a further 24-hour strike on November 12, which coincided with that day’s general strike. The most recent was the 48-hour strike over November 25, 26 and 27, which exceeded the CUT’s call for a November 26 general strike  and coincided with the call by the Social Unity Roundtable group of unions and social organizations for a national strike from November 25 to 27.

Dockworkers in Chile are motivated by a profound indignation against the present-day state of Chile with its injustice, inequality and repression. As a member of the local branch of the UPC in the northern city of Antofagasta told Al Jazeera, “We’re on strike because of the injustice in the country,” then adding that “we are here because of the repression by state forces against workers.” Indigenous Mapuche dockworker Alberto Mamquepan told the same reporter that “There is so much inequality” that “the system is rotten,” and that while dockers make good money compared to other workers, they still had parents and grandparents who were forced to survive off miserable pensions. When asked if protests could be pinned down to any single issue, Mamquepan said that “It is … everything. It is not one single thing. That is why things exploded.”

It is this sense of indignation that has propelled Chilean dockers into the frontline of the ongoing rebellion. Demonstrations of dockworkers in their high-visibility workwear have regularly marched from the docks to join and often lead larger rallies in the country’s coastal cities. Given the often long distances between ports and city centers, this is no easy matter. Just one example is the November 12 march by hundreds of dockers from the southern port of Talcahuano to the city of Concepción, an eight-mile march that took the best part of three hours.

Members of the Dockworkers Union have also employed more militant tactics. For instance, on October 29, dockers in the port of Talcahuano blocked the port entrance with shipping containers stacked two high, creating an almost 20-foot high solid metal barricade. November 26 saw dockers block all traffic across the Llacolén Bridge for an hour or so as they marched into Concepción, while dockers in Valparaíso set up roadblocks and barricades across the city from the early hours of the morning. These are just two examples of the many roadblocks and blockades that dockworkers have either taken part in or instigated in recent weeks.

Being on the frontline of the struggle means that dockers have not been spared from the repression and violence brought down upon demonstrators by the security forces. According to a November 5 statement of the International Dockworkers Council (IDC), a number of members of UPC affiliates have been affected. These include Joan Parra, a leader of the Port Workers’ Federation of Iquique (FETRAPI – Federación de Trabajadores Portuarios de Iquique), who was savagely beaten by police and whose eye was seriously wounded by a gunshot. In the port of Talcahuano in Concepción, one docker was assaulted by police, the wife of a union spokesperson was run over while at a peaceful demonstration, and another docker lost a family member after they were run off the road by the military and later died. More recently, sacked dockworker Ricardo Soto was injured in Valparaíso on November 26 when a tear gas canister struck him on the head after police attacked a demonstration.

While the Dockworkers Union of Chile has repeatedly stopped work in around 20 of Chile’s ports, a few ports have unfortunately kept working. This is primarily due to unions from competing union federations refusing to take part in these strikes. These federations include the Port Workers’ Federation of Chile (COTRAPORCHI – Confederación de Trabajadores Portuarios de Chile) and the Maritime Federation of Chile (COMACH – Confederación Marítima de Chile), which is aligned to the right-wing Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and over the last ten years has been repeatedly suspended and readmitted to the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF). Ports where these other federations have a presence, such as Arica, Mejillones and Coquimbo in the country’s north, have kept working while other ports have been on strike.

The situation is more contradictory in the nation’s most important port of Valparaíso. For nearly twenty years, the Sindicato de Trabajadores Transitorios Estibadores Portuarios de Valparaíso, known simply as Stevedores Union No. 1 of Valparaíso, was led by the business-friendly union bureaucrat and COMACH president Roberto Rojas Montoya. Years of organizing by the militants of Dockers United Valparaíso (PUV – Portuarios Unidos Valparaíso), a rank and file group supported by the UPC, and a month-long strike by casual dockworkers in late 2018 finally saw the end of Roberto Rojas. Sensing that his time was up, Rojas decided not to re-contest the president’s position in the elections held in January this year. The presidency of the Stevedores Union No. 1 is now held by PUV leader radical left-wing Frente Amplio (Broad Front) member Pablo Klimpel. This means that the traditionally strike-averse Stevedores Union No. 1 of Valparaíso is now striking alongside the unions of the Dockworkers Union of Chile. Despite all this, COTRAPORCHI affiliates have generally continued to keep working during the recent strikes. In Valparaíso, the COTRAPORCHI affiliates at Terminal Pacífico Sur (TPS) have so far only joined the one strike that occurred on November 12. This has prompted the UPC to tell these COTRAPORCHI affiliates that they are “betraying workers and the country” and that they should “stop worrying about the bosses’ wallet” and take part in all future dock strikes.

The Dockworkers Union of Chile is as much at the forefront of the political struggle as it is the industrial struggle. The union has taken a clear stance in opposition to the recently signed “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution”. This “Social Peace” Agreement, signed just days after the general strike of November 12, is an attempt to divert the overwhelming desire of the Chilean people for the scrapping of the Pinochet-era Constitution of 1980 into a process of limited constitutional reform. Along with the usual suspects such as Piñera’s right-wing Chile Vamos (Let’s go Chile) coalition, the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Socialist Party, all of whom signed the agreement, what came as a shock to many was the addition of signatures from representatives and individuals from the more radical Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition.

You may be interested in Chile: Frente Amplio Joins Bourgeois Parties in “Social Peace” Agreement.

Regardless of the close ties that some UPC leaders have with sections of the Frente Amplio, the dockers’ union has come out in opposition to the “Agreement for Social Peace.” The union’s November 15 declaration (see translation below) clearly spells this out. Among other things, the declaration points out that the agreement makes no mention of the ongoing human rights abuses committed by the military and police forces; does not refer to the most heartfelt social and economic demands of the people; highlights the limited democracy involved in the proposed “Constitutional Convention” process; and argues that this agreement will not lead to a Constituent Assembly that does away with the hated Pinochet-era Constitution of 1980.

You may be interested in: Chile: What Kind of Constituent Assembly is Needed?

The co-thinkers of Left Voice in Chile, the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR) and La Izquierda Diario Chile, have since the start of the rebellion put forward a clear proposal for the way forward: an indefinite general strike that continues until Piñera is toppled. They argue that this is the only way to impose a truly free and sovereign Constituent Assembly on the ruins of the regime inherited from the dictatorship. Furthermore, they point to the need for working-class and popular self-organization in democratic, rank and file bodies such as the Emergency and Protection Committee in Antofagasta; the Cordón Centro in the suburbs of Santiago that brings hundreds of health workers from the Barros Luco hospital and other workers from the surrounding area together; and the open assembly forced upon local union leaders in Valparaíso who call for the general strikes while preferring to meet behind closed doors.

The Dockworkers Union of Chile has undoubtedly played a leading role in the ongoing rebellion against the Piñera government. However, the union has so far not called for an indefinite general strike that continues until the much-hated government falls. It remains to be seen whether or not the UPC calls such a strike. Nevertheless, its rejection of the “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution” is a very important political development that can only add fuel to the fire of the popular rebellion now underway.

Reprinted below is a translation of the November 15 declaration of the Dockworkers Union of Chile (UPC) that spells out its opposition to the “Agreement for Social Peace”.

Public Declaration

Dockworkers Union of Chile on the “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution”

15.11.2019

The dockworkers of Chile have taken a position on the Agreement signed by the majority of the political parties in Congress, and declare that:

1. It goes without saying that our deepest desire is to put an end to the Constitution of 1980. We want to move forward and bury the State which complements it and the neoliberal economic model. Without a doubt, the opening of democratic debate around the content of a New Constitution that moves in this direction is a step forward for which we will assume our historic responsibility.

2. The Agreement signed in the former National Congress revives the old practice of consensus, inherited from the worst practices of the transition. The Chilean people have demonstrated a desire for binding political participation, for which signing agreements without any consideration of the social movement and the citizenry does nothing but undermine the validity of such agreements.

3. In this vein, we advocate a Constituent Assembly that sends to the rubbish bin of history all those deceitful mechanisms outlined in the current Constitution which limit the democratic possibilities of the Chilean people and the ability to generate laws that give solution to the demands that people are asking for in the streets, without ending in constitutional vetoes. Accordingly, with respect to the text of the Agreement and, in particular, with respect to the so-called “Constitutional Convention”, we consider that:

a. We do not want a Constitution which only goes ‘as far as possible.’ A quorum of 2/3rds favors the veto of minorities against majorities. We believe that a more democratic quorum should be considered that will make it possible for majority support to win. In addition, in the event of issues that are difficult to resolve, we deem it appropriate to consider plebiscites as it is the Chilean people who are called upon to decide their own destiny;

b. The mechanism for the election of constituent delegates should not remain the exclusive space of political parties. The latter have the capacity and resources to install their candidates at the expense of social and union organizations.

Furthermore, the Constituent Assembly cannot be disengaged from the process of discussion and political-popular debate contained in the Citizen’s ‘Town Hall Meetings’ (Cabildos Ciudadanos) that have developed across the country.

c. We say in advance that we are not going to guarantee that the Technical Commission that designed the operability of the constituent space will be based exclusively on an agreement between the government and the opposition. We are not going to allow the social and trade union movement to be turned away again.

d. We believe it is important that the introductory plebiscite as well as its ratification have an obligatory character. There are no reasons to discourage or guarantee the greatest possible citizen participation except for the fear from conservative sectors that the popular outcry will be forcefully expressed at the polls.

4. Apart from that, there is no reference to the Social Agenda in the Agreement. We repudiate the fact that the Workers’ Statement is ignored. The Union Block of Social Unity presented letters and interpellations to the President of the Republic as well as to the deputies, senators and political parties, regarding this document and the demand for a Constituent Assembly. There was no formal response, as we requested, but instead the government responded with its proposal for a Constituent Assembly Congress, to which we replied with a great General Strike held on November 12.

Despite this explicit desire of the workers, the parties and parliamentarians did not take the social movement into account and signed an agreement in the middle of the night without any consideration for the freezing of the anti-popular laws that the government has promoted (pensions, taxes, labor agenda) or even less the promotion of measures that start to address the most urgent social and economic demands, as summarized in the aforementioned document.

5. Similarly, we consider the invisibility of human rights abuses to be serious. It is not possible to move forward with agreements if justice, truth and punishment are not realized with respect to the members of the forces of order and the military who have been involved in acts of violence against the population. In terms of political responsibility, we subscribe to the request made by Social Unity to dismiss the Director General of the Carabineros, Mario Rozas Córdova, by decree order, along with all those who are responsible for the systematic practice of repressive brutality.

Likewise, we will not rest until the International Treaties that Chile has signed, such as the Rome Statute, become effective with respect to the prosecution and punishment of crimes against humanity that have occurred in connection with the recent demonstrations.

6. In accordance with these precautions, we call for the maintaining of a state of permanent mobilization, and do not rule out the call for a new General Strike if in the coming days an agreement that includes the economic and political demands made by the social forces at the heart of Chilean society is not mediated. From now on, our union strength will act as a guarantor that the desire for transformation from the social movement will not be flouted by political agreements struck by the elite in the constituent process that opened up on October 18, 2019.

7. Our immediate task is to strengthen the historic impulse towards union unity that has been generated through this mobilization and to give continuity to its transformative power that will allow for the foundation of a sovereign and popular Chile that puts an end to all abuse and injustice.

 ¡Asamblea Constituyente Ahora!

(Constituent Assembly Now!)

¡Cumplimiento de la Agenda Social y el Pliego de las y los Trabajadores!

(Implement the Social Agenda and the Workers’ Statement!)

¡Huelga General para Vencer!

(General Strike to Win!)

¡¡Arriba las y los que luchan, Nunca mas solas y solos, Ni un paso atrás!!

(Long live those who struggle! Never alone again! Not one step back!)

UNIÓN PORTUARIA DE CHILE

(DOCKWORKERS UNION OF CHILE)

The original Spanish version of this declaration can be found at the Dockworkers Union of Chile’s Facebook page. 

And at the La Izquierda Diario Chile website:

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